Thu. Sep 21st, 2023

Image: Travis Gallipo Photography

The Leagues Cup begins tonight, with a dream fixture: Inter Miami, also known as FC Barcelona Old Boys, against Cruz Azul.

This is not the only game tonight, nor is the Leagues Cup a new competition, but from a league attention perspective, you wouldn’t know about either of those things. Lionel Messi’s debut comes tonight in what is an extremely new look in the short history of the Leagues Cup, and it’s fair to say that all attention is on DRV PNK Stdm (hurry up with that new park, Miami).

Nobody quite knows what to expect out of the revamped Leagues Cup, and the more I think about it, the more I think it’s fair to say that we could separate that into three different things: what the league wants, what the teams want, and what the fans want.

From a league perspective, it seems clear that what they want is a better version of the U.S. Open Cup. It’s no secret that MLS isn’t exactly happy with how the USOC works; commissioner Don Garber was very clear on that this year, when he called the tournament “a very poor reflection on what it is that we’re trying to do with soccer at the highest level.”

As storied as the US Open Cup is, and as desperately as MLS needs its historical validation and placement, we’re also talking about a tournament that is barely shown on TV or streaming. It certainly hasn’t captured fans’ imagination; Minnesota drew more fans for U.S. Open Cup games when they were in the second division than they do now that they’re an MLS side. As it turns out, scheduled-on-the-fly midweek games seem to be a problem for fans.

MLS is betting that their teams will look better alongside the storied franchises of Liga MX, instead of losing at home to USL Championship sides (we see you, Atlanta United). They’d rather Inter Miami get beaten 4-0 tonight by Cruz Azul, then get taken to penalties by Miami FC (as they did in the US Open Cup).

As a longtime lover of the USOC, if this pushes U.S. Soccer to do better with their cup competition too, that wouldn’t be a bad thing either.

From a team perspective, specifically from a Minnesota United perspective, this does also feel like another version of the US Open Cup, in the sense that the coaches and players are saying all the right things about being competitive – but their minds seem to be a bit elsewhere.

Minnesota’s loss to third-division Union Omaha in the 2022 edition of the US Open Cup may have colored our memories of just how serious the Loons tend to take this competition; it’s worth remembering that, unlike a fair number of MLS sides, they have tended to commit resources to making progress in the tournament. MNUFC reached the final in 2019, and won two rounds in both this year’s edition, and in 2022. Even when they went down 4-0 in Houston this year, they were playing a strong team, one that included nine regular MLS starters.

Even so, when asked about the Leagues Cup after their 1-1 draw with LAFC last weekend, their words were right but their heads seemed to be focused on the potential for the tournament as a fitness exercise, almost like a preseason tournament, to get ready for the MLS stretch drive. Some of that is understandable; after all, they’d just finished three MLS games in eight days, including preparing for and playing perhaps the best team in the league. Obviously, they wouldn’t have distracted themselves by spending a lot of time looking at what Puebla might bring to town, eight days hence.

Still, the answers seemed telling. Manager Adrian Heath said, “We want to treat the Leagues Cup with the respect that the tournament should have, because it’s an important one.” But then in his next sentence, he was speculating on what it would mean for the ability of Teemu Pukki, Sang Bin Jeong, and Emanuel Reynoso to get up to full fitness levels; “We feel as though the next month is going to be really important for us to get them really at their maximum,” he said.

Zarek Valentin spoke about how winning is a habit, saying, “It doesn’t mean that we want to throw these games away just to get some fitness because we still want to win, we’re still competitive.” But that was immediately after he said, “Maybe [we can] see some of the new guys that have come in [and] allow them even more games to get in shape, to get 90 minutes sharp when it doesn’t necessarily count in the league.”

Michael Boxall, meanwhile, admitted he hadn’t even started thinking about the tournament, and didn’t even get through a whole answer before turning his thoughts back to MLS. “I think it will be interesting to play teams from other leagues,” he said, “but we have put ourselves in a position where we have dropped more points, and should be in a better position than we are.”

Again, some of this is to be expected; these comments came right after the LAFC game, and so it would have been surprising if the coaches and players weren’t thinking about MLS ahead of the Leagues Cup. But you can also say for certain that the Loons certainly haven’t been thinking ahead to the Leagues Cup, either.

If you offered them the choice of making a knockout run in the Leagues Cup, or making a run to the MLS playoffs, I get the sense that I know which one they would choose.

Finally, from a fan’s perspective, I just want this tournament to work. As I said, I’ve long been a U.S. Open Cup lover and defender. I don’t want to see it treated like an afterthought; part of the thing that I’ve always enjoyed about soccer is the dichotomy of seeing teams try to compete in multiple competitions at the same time.

I’m also, like so many people who got into soccer through the World Cup and the United States national teams, a big fan of tournament soccer in general. The format of the Leagues Cup leaves something to be desired – the 15-groups-of-three setup is pretty close to the potential 2026 World Cup format that was mooted and, happily, rejected – but at least it’s recognizable tournament-style soccer.

I want the US Open Cup to be a bigger deal, but so far, that hasn’t worked very well. I’m hoping that this one is the one that catches fans’ imagination, and maybe pushes the USOC to get better, too.

Regardless, it’s Leagues Cup time in North America. What remains to be seen is whether this turns into an exciting summertime tournament – or, effectively, an exhibition over the summertime break.

By Jon Marthaler

Jon has written about every Minnesota sport under the sun, including about Minnesota United FC, going back to four names and five owners ago.

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